By Sir John Holmes, Chair, UK Electoral Commission
The last weeks have seen significant coverage of the issue of the regulation of political campaigning, much of it focusing on two sets of linked, but very different investigations.
The Electoral Commission undertook the first of these following the General Election of 2015. We investigated the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative parties and found all three had failed to meet the legal requirements for their central party, national spending returns. We fined all three to varying extents, reflecting the severity of these failures and levels of cooperation during the investigatory process. These were civil penalties for the central parties’ failure to meet the requirements of what should be included in their spending returns as set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
The second set of investigations were those undertaken by the police, following complaints to them from members of the public, in some instances then referred to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for decisions on whether to pursue prosecutions. These were criminal investigations into whether individual candidates and agents had broken the Representation of the People Act 1983 by failing to complete their local, candidate spending returns correctly. For candidates, this requires a criminal standard of proof and knowingly intending to mislead. In relation to the national party offences investigated by the Electoral Commission such intent was not required and resulted in civil fines.
This difference of approach can create confusion for the public. Indeed, we have proposed that we should regulate candidate spending as well as party spending, to ensure consistency. However, the current laws are well established and clear on what is required. It is therefore regrettable that some have treated the outcomes of the two cases as somehow incompatible or claimed that one undermines the credibility of the other.
The failings found by the Electoral Commission in the central party returns meant, in the case of the Conservatives, that some individual candidate spending returns did not include all the required spend. Indeed, the CPS indicated that this was consistent with their findings. Whether these omissions meant candidates had committed a criminal offence was then rightly investigated by the police and CPS. While the Commission referred two individuals to the police – the ‘responsible person’ at central level for both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives – we did not refer any individual candidates.
Ensuring transparency for the public was at the heart of Parliament’s decision to set the rules the Commission oversees. Our detailed, evidence-based investigatory reports are all available on our website. In each of the recent cases, the party concerned has paid the fine promptly. Since then, we have provided fresh guidance to political parties enabling them to strengthen their systems and understanding of the requirements. Compliance is preferable to investigation of apparent failures to follow the rules.
What does this mean for the current General Election campaign? We have one of the most transparent and strict systems in the world, not least on the issue of political finance. Elections in the UK are well run and highly respected internationally. It is important that the rules are overseen by an impartial Electoral Commission and that money continues not to play an excessive role in our democratic processes, not least because we know the public is concerned about this.
We will therefore be watching this election carefully too. Political campaigning is the lifeblood of any election or referendum, seeking to reach and inform voters and to engage in debate, and should not be fettered excessively or unnecessarily. Our role is not to stand in the way, but to understand campaigning activity, including the new possibilities offered by social media, and to ensure fairness and transparency about where money is spent to influence people’s votes.
We will continue to be proactive in providing advice and guidance to those we regulate, but at the end of the day we do not exist to serve them. The interests of the public are and must be at the centre of everything that we do. As well as closely monitoring the campaign, in the coming weeks we will be publishing weekly data on donations and loans to political parties. Following the election, we will audit and report on campaign spending, and on what changes to the regulatory regime may be required in order to secure and improve trust in our democratic processes. Maintaining public faith in the integrity of our elections will remain our principal goal.